Reflections on 20th Round of RCEP Negotiations in South Korea
This time last month, the negotiators of from 16 countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) descended on the city of Songdo, a so-called “smart city” built from scratch on reclaimed tidal flats that once upon a time, home to several threatened waterbird species but is now home to an international business district.
In an unprecedented practice within RCEP negotiations, civil societies were allowed to meet with negotiators from five of the RCEP working groups: Intellectual Property which was combined with the Trade Negotiation Committee (TNC), Services, E-Commerce, Investments, Legal and Institution. While this sounds like a reasonable first step towards more transparent and inclusive trade negotiation process that is more reflective of the role of CSOs as rights holder and governments as duty bearers, it was contrasted by the fact that CSOs were escorted throughout the meetings with the five working groups, and were not allowed into the negotiation venue during the rest of the time and put in waiting rooms (that were more akin to holding cells) while waiting to meet subsequent working groups.
CSOs critiqued not only the proposed intellectual property, investment and services rules currently proposed, but also how trade and investments agreements in general have been seen to disproportionately impact marginalised communities in the region. APWLD told the working groups about the impact of trade on women and also raised concerns around transparency and access to negotiations. Using the example of the host country South Korea, APWLD spoke on how countries often rely on the cheap wages of women to prop up their export industries, essentially becoming competitive on the backs of women’s cheap labour. When South Korea began moving to a higher technological production, most of these jobs went to men, leading to women losing their jobs. When privatisation of public services happens in many RCEP countries, women end up filling those gaps through their unpaid care work or by paying for unaffordable private services. We have seen that when entire families have less access to medicines, women usually sacrifice their health to ensure that their children or partners are still be able to access it.
All these illustrate the gendered nature of market, especially when it operates freely. And yet free trade agreements such as RCEP are essentially removing the responsibilities of governments from addressing any of these. Subjecting governments to “fair and equitable treatments” principles, of which no definition of “fair” or “equitable” has been provided in the context of trade, leads to even some affirmative action policies to be construed as unfair or inequitable, denying many developing countries the economic policies that have benefitted developed countries in the past, to achieve their developed status.
The tone of this round was a lot more sombre than the tone employed by the negotiating governments when the 16 countries had met in Japan earlier in the year during the 17th round. As the negotiation which was supposed to have conclude by 2017, under the Philippines’ Chairship of ASEAN, will most definitely stretch into 2018.
RCEP governments continue to be divided on the issues of intellectual property, investments, market access, labor movement and the latest frontier of trade agreements – e-commerce. Countries such as Japan and South Korea have been proposing stricter intellectual property laws known as the TRIPS Plus – the type of rules that will make it harder for the developing governments in RCEP to ensure that they can continue to provide medicines to their entire populations, especially, if you are countries with large populations like India and Indonesia. Some of the negotiators even conceded, that the world of intellectual property is indeed complex and therein lies much tensions within it.
The investment chapter continues to be another contentious issue as a number of RCEP governments who has been sued in the costly Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the past remained concerned on the ISDS provisions. CSOs concerns on how ISDS are increasingly restricting governments’ domestic policy-making, became doubly apparent, when in that same week, the South Korean government announced that they had received the intent of the 4th ISDS case to be filed against the them. In the first ever ISDS case under KORUS FTA, South Korea could be sued over alleged expropriation because the Seoul City government bought land from the foreign investor for the purpose of redevelopment.
CSOs have also been consistently demanding that trade negotiations should be open and accessible, that negotiated texts should be released and for governments to respond to the needs and demands of the people and not of corporations. 2018 will bring the negotiation under the ASEAN Chairship of Singapore with the first round of the year set to take place in the island city. While RCEP governments will probably kick of next year with another hasty statement on wrapping up the negotiation by 2018, they will not do so easily as the peoples’ movements and resistance across RCEP grows stronger. These movements will continue growing both in strength and in solidarity until and when governments are able to put forth trade agendas that are for the people instead of for multinational corporations.